Disclaimer: Chances are if you missed the disclaimer in the first chapter, you're skimming this fic and probably missing more of the story than you think.
A/N: Thanks goes to jpdt19 and wolve for freely offering their help and insight into the London area. Cheers, your assistance is invaluable. Yes, I know it's a short chapter. You'll live.
C'est la vie.
Such is life.
White noise settled into a low-level buzz through Harry's mind. It was like somebody had tried turning the radio on, but the only channels coming through were full of static and half-garbled messages.
His hands worked by memory, tugging the polishing cloth through the dismantled barrel of the Beretta. The stringent smell of gun oil wafted up from the gleaming pieces of the weapon strewn out across the table.
The safe house was located on the outskirts of the docklands. Back from the glitzy new redevelopments along the front, the old still lingered; a temporary drop spot where he could hole up and disappear when things got too tense.
Harry placed the barrel down on the drop cloth and reached for the next item in line. A knife appeared in his hands this time and he flipped the cloth to a dry side before inspecting the blade's edge for nicks.
Don't think, don't think anything at all. Don't think, just do. Don't give yourself enough time to look back and regret.
No amount of clinging to the past would make the future any better.
His pulse beat steady and slow in his ears. Like a clock, tick-tick-ticking down to the end.
Without his baby-faced Glamour, Harry Potter – the real Harry Potter – stared back at him from the polished steel of the blade. It was the boggart's twin, hollow-cheeked and hungry; bruised smudges under the eyes from lack of sleep.
Objectively, Harry knew his sixteen-year-old self had started this with moral righteousness on his side. But somewhere along the way that moral objective had gotten warped, his view of the world no longer lining up in neat, well-ordered rows. And now that he was close enough to see where he'd made his biggest mistakes, the more he realized just how futile his efforts were, fuck ups, fix-ups and all.
"Oh what a tangled web we weave," Harry murmured to himself. "When first we practice to deceive."
Blackwood panted like an angry bull, fists planted knuckle-down on Shorner's desk, the thick muscle of his shoulders bunched tight and straining against the crisp cut of his robes.
"If you cannot control your agent – " Blackwood bit out.
Shorner stared back, expression bland and impassive. "Self-defence is not a crime," he replied, folding his hands atop the pile of paperwork in front of him. "Morticus Calloway used lethal magic, my agent did not. Hadrian Sharr is neither guilty of culpable manslaughter nor any flavour of reckless endangerment."
"The Auror was unacceptable collateral damage." Blackwood straightened, rubbing the heel of his hand over his temple. "Now, half of the DMLE is poking their collective noses in places better left alone."
"My agent tried to avoid such an occurrence by manipulating the dispute into an abandoned building," Shorner rejoined, keeping his voice smooth and even and free of his rising frustration. "Calloway, on the other hand, repeatedly cast the Killing Curse as well as the hex that killed Auror Hartken."
There was a rush of voices through the half-open door, one of the many committee meetings of Experimental Magic letting a flood of employees out into the corridor. From the jubilant sound of the technicians' conversation, someone had gotten the go ahead on their project.
The left-over silence when they passed rang out all the more clearly against the memory of voices.
"This is not about my agent, Shorner," Blackwood murmured, the shapes of his words thin and strained from the tension in his face.
Shoner's eyebrows rose in an expression of surprise. He wanted to say it was genuine, but he was beginning to get the impression that Blackwood was merely going through the motions to cover his own arse. It seemed as if the Head of Mission Operatives was reading his lines from a script and nobody had bothered to share a copy with Shorner.
"Really," he replied, unable to keep the barbed edge of sardonic disbelief from his voice. "A rogue operative from your division went after one of mine with the intent to kill. If we weren't working under such shady circumstances already, this incident would be enough to put your whole department under investigation. Murdering a fellow agent – especially a superior in the chain of command – isn't just homicide, it's one step away from treason. The fact that Calloway failed doesn't diminish the severity of the situation."
Blackwood dipped his head in a semblance of a nod, dark eyes wary now that Shorner showed no signs of playing his game. "Calloway's actions were not sanctioned by myself. Nor by any other member of my staff. I am prepared to vouch for them if at all necessary."
I am prepared to put my career on the line.
Shorner's rebuttal dried up, the words too heavy with the weight of reality for mockery or mirth. "Then I'd wager that your problem is about to get a whole lot bigger than Calloway's mess," he replied.
The ' - if you cannot control your agents' went unsaid, but the quick tightening of Blackwood's jaw showed that he'd heard it loud and clear.
"I am not your subordinate, Connor," Shorner continued, his words low and serious as he refocused his attention on his paperwork, the unfinished letter to Harry hidden underneath the pile. "I think you forget that at times."
It took almost an hour after Blackwood left for Shorner to feel safe enough to tug Harry's letter from hiding.
Brief and pointed, the message to Shorner's wayward agent contained only one line of importance through the tangle of code blathering on about the banalities of paperwork:
See me at your earliest possible convenience.
Sirius curled his toes in the dry grass near the steps. Small white flowers dotted the overgrown fields surrounding the villa. This close to the ocean, the air was still balmy and summer-warm.
The old Black château along the Mediterranean coast of France had been abandoned for so long that the garden had grown into the house. Brilliant shards of stained glass were wound tight with variegated ivy, a thick carpet of moss growing over the stonework. Part of the entry hall ceiling had fallen through; the heavy branches of what was once a potted house-plant reaching up towards the sky, roots cracking great slabs of the marble floor and sinking deep into the earth.
It was easy to forget how much freedom meant until you had none at all.
After he'd escaped, even the smallest stimuli sent his senses into overload. Colours too bright, sounds harsh and loud. Even the air felt like too much, too different from the damp, salty chill of Azkaban. Sirius found himself missing the sameness of each day repeating itself in a never-ending monotony of grey – if only for the safety of knowing that each day would be the same as the last, never having to guess what might come next. He'd forgotten how to function in a world outside of a small cell and two meals a day, dementor-induced madness prowling along the edges of his subconscious as it searched for a way in.
Being around Harry was like those first few days out of the gloom.
There was a moment of guilt-induced shame. Here he was lying to Harry, telling him that he was... what? Proud of him? That he loved him? That he wanted to be family to him? That Harry embodied everything the Black Legacy held proud? Everything that Sirius had run from at sixteen?
Sirius knew he had handed too much of his own autonomy over to a boy who wasn't even old enough to shave, but what other options did he have? Pettigrew was gone, run off by Harry or threats similar. The UK was undergoing an almost literal witch-hunt and his picture circling the Muggle world made it nearly as dangerous. Even apparation was out of question – the paper-pushers at the ministry now able to track signatures from beginning to end. Somehow, when he wasn't looking, technology had advanced to the point where it made anonymity a fever-dream at best.
And yet... Despite all of this...Harry still managed to gallivant around the globe with what was apparently no-one the wiser.
"Knock knock!" a voice bellowed as if summoned by his thoughts, the sound crossing through the covered gardens to the half-ruined wreck of a house. The tall, lanky figure coalesced into his godson, a knapsack slung over his shoulder and a pair of battered old aviators hiding the green hue of his irises.
'You know well the power of names,' whispered the shadow in his mind. Now the sunlight seemed painful, too bright, too hard, the heat cloying and clinging to each breath. Sweat prickled at his skin.
It had been, what...? Barely a week since school started? More than that, how the hell had he found this place? Harry was lucky the wards hadn't cooked him from the inside out the moment he set foot on the grounds.
"Harry?" asked Sirius, voice gritty from disuse. "Why aren't you at Hogwarts?"
His godson looked down, scuffing the toe of his boot through the loose, dusty earth where a paving stone was missing. "Yeah, about that." Harry exhaled, tilting his head back to stare at the sky before cracking his neck from side to side.
There was a thin sheen of sweat near his hairline.
"Things have gotten a bit complicated."
This time, there is no music. No catchy tune, no handy jingle, no hallowed hymn to hold him through the hour.
Objectively, he knows he's not here, knows that his body is safe and asleep in Sirius' crumbling château by the sea. Knows that if he reaches out, his fingers would touch the soft cotton of his blankets spread out over the low couch in the green room; glass ceiling panes still holding strong despite the years. Knows that if he opened his eyes, he'd see starlight – impressionist fireflies through the cloudy glaze of the windowpanes.
Draco hitches the legs of his trousers up as he settles onto the bench beside him. The scritch-grit of debris beneath his shoes is echo-loud in the silence.
The world burns around them.
Less than a hundred meters away, the steel frame of a building bends in the heat haze; its crown bowing down to touch the ground, hellfire licking at the rubble. Burning paper falls like ash from the sky. Sparks sear holes in his BDUs and streak Harry's arms with soot.
He rubs at the dirty residue on his skin, black staining the joins of his fingers. "Can a tiger change his stripes?" he asks no-one in particular.
Draco laughs. His eyes are puffy and raw, as if from tears or the burning ash choking out the air."I doubt it," he drawls, draping an arm across the back of the bench. "But then, I've never seen you try."
Harry doesn't know what he means by that. Truth be told, that's more due to wilful obliviousness than actual ignorance.
He knows he's heard this refrain before.
At the base of the bench where they've carefully avoided stepping, avoided looking, lies Lorraine's body twisted underneath scraps of rebar and brick, her golden curls tangled with window glass like diamonds in the sun. The bus stop signpost glows a lurid orange, heat waves rippling through the smoke. The blackened metal skeleton of the bus lingers by the curb. If a broken clock is right two times a day, then the bus is on schedule at least twice that.
They're going nowhere fast.
Draco sits there in his white, white suit, lounging on the bench like they were having drinks at some seaside spa and resort – not jawing around over the body of Harry's dead girlfriend. Harry smooths out the imaginary wrinkles on his blood-spattered black fatigues, self-concious for the first time in ages. Even in death, Draco was moving up while he was moving down. It's one of those moments in life that's swollen with words too confusing, too conflicting to manipulate into coherent sentences.
'What am I doing?' he wants to ask. As if the man had a magic 8-ball hidden in his fancy suit and all the easy answers contained within.
Harry opens his mouth.
Cars sit in the intersection, piled haphazard over each other like a toddler's building blocks. A tiny punched-in Fiat burns at the stop light, rubber tires sending out a melted stink. Bright flares sear after-images of green and blue into Harry's vision.
Soon, all of this will be ash. It'll be another year before the Thames floods through here, packing in a layer of garbage and mud over the sooty debris.
"I feel like I'm grave-robbing the lives of the living to give back to the dead," says Harry, wiping the sweat from his face.
Bitterness dances around the edges of Draco's laugh. "You have no idea what you're doing, do you?" Draco murmurs. His lip curls, pity and anger self-evident. And if Harry didn't know better, he'd say Draco was watching him with the same sick fascination as he would watch someone suicidal jump onto the train tracks, lights racing toward them.
The metal stairs from the flat behind them crash down, neon-edged sparks lighting upon Harry's skin. That little alleyway nearby is going to go up in flames. And all the air is going to be sucked from this place, crumbling, graffiti-marked concrete blasting outwards like shrapnel from a grenade.
The fires are coming closer.
And he'd seen Lorraine in the common room; seen her dismay – her fear – and knew it was directed at himself.
Why hadn't he thought of her? It was as if he'd hurt too much to try and wrap his mind around her presence. Easier then, to continue thinking of her as dead than to face up to the reality that he couldn't ever have her again. Because the person here wasn't the woman he'd fallen in love with and he wasn't the man she'd cared for and grown to love.
Or maybe he'd never loved her at all. Maybe... Maybe he'd loved the idea of her more than he'd loved the actual person.
A scrap of dark silk slithers free from around his neck. The banner of the Sharr House pools in his lap, stark against the worn weave of his BDUs. Winding the silk about his fingers, Harry stared into the white eyes of a rearing thestral with curling black ram's horns.
"I never did," Harry replies.